We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.
– Joseph Conrad
This kind of mystery is like a source, a gas or kerosene lamp, a gas-powered or hand-crank electric generator. It gives birth to stories, powers them.
– Ander Monson
In case you can’t read the baby blue spraypaint, it reads “PAULDING LIGHT”
My descent into the unknown loosely resembled a family vacation. Driving North, our first stop was Cadillac, where we visited a quaint gaming shop called Wargames North and Amy got an eight-sided di (a D8, for the initiated) from a gumball machine. From there we cut East toward Higgins Lake. Circling the pristine waters, Amy told me stories about spending time at her grandparents’ cottage and her brother’s four-wheeler antics. The sun went down while we walked around Mackinaw City at the top of the lower peninsula. We peaked through the window at Amy’s great uncle’s bakery. It was closed by the time we got there. On the way back we would stop by the shop and pick up donuts, but the ants would get to them before we could. That evening we checked in to a cabin just on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge that had looked awesome four years earlier when we’d come that way before, but which was, in fact, nasty.
The ultimate destination of this trip was a spot in Ontoganon County where one can witness a mysterious phenomenon called the Paulding Light, but Amy didn’t know that yet. (Those of you who have already read my previous #ParanormalActivities post might think our destination was actually The Humongous Fungus of Iron County, Michigan, but that was always intended to be an interesting side trip on the way to see the light.) When I first had the idea weeks earlier all I said to Amy was, “Don’t make any plans for the weekend of the Fourth.” When she asked me why, I simply said, “It’s a surprise,” and she was satisfied. Surprises, like sunshine and movement, are a kind of currency with Amy.
I had first heard of the Paulding Light in a book titled Other Electricities: Stories by Michigan author Ander Monson. (After re-reading the book, I realize that Monson also made references to the humongous fungus in his book. Oh, the sources of my intrigue!) In the early 2000s I was lucky to be enrolled in the first Creative Writing class Monson taught at Grand Valley State University in Allendale. I was also among the few he invited to celebrate the end of his tenure there by singing karaoke at a frightening dive bar on the west side of Grand Rapids. In-between, Monson became the single most influential figure in my pursuit of a career in writing. (I am currently in transit. Wish me luck.) The following passage from the short story that this volume derived its name from was the marble that set off a long and complicated Rube Goldberg mechanism that would eventually bring me into the presence of the mysterious glow itself:
One night while he was up top, we took the car. He didn’t notice.
I drove it, gassed it up; we took it down to Paulding, Michigan, home of the Paulding Light. Which is not a light exactly. Nor anything exactly. It has no power source, no explanation, no obvious cause. It is not a hoax. It made Unsolved Mysteries one year. We watched it on tape a while after it aired, copied from someone who had recorded it from TV.
You go down this road and turn your lights out. You can only drive so far. Several miles down the path along the power lines into the distance — as far as an eye can follow — lights appear and seem to roll back and forth. My brother had never been there before. This was another electricity, I told him. Watch that thing.
I’m sad to say that it took me nearly a decade to finally set out on this path, but the wait had its up side. I was engaged to a beautiful woman that I would marry the following September and we were repeating the first trip that we ever took together. In 2010, we had attempted to make it all the way to the light, but some barrier had stopped us, adding drag like an object approaching the speed of light. We started something four years ago, and for some reason it felt like we needed to finish it before we could get married, so on the morning of July the fourth we left the nasty cabin and continued on our way.
When we reached Manistique cutting West into the Upper Peninsula, I pulled over at a McDonalds. As Amy ran inside to find the restroom, I used the momentary spike of wireless internet reception in order to investigate where I needed to go to find the Paulding Light and what I should expect. Also known as the “Dog Meadow Light” or the “Lights of Paulding,” the mysterious spectral phenomenon was found outside of Paulding near Watersmeet off US 45 on Robins Pond Road / Old US 45. The purported first sighting was in 1966, when a group of teenagers dragged the sheriff down to watch the light dancing along the power lines. People over the years thought this shining light was the ghost of a railroad brakeman walking along, lantern in hand, or the spirit of a slain mail carrier or dancing Indian. It was described as strange geologic activity or swamp gas, but for years the phenomenon remained unexplained, until 2010, that is.
I felt the contents of my intestines shift. I didn’t want to go on reading any further. I had spent a decade working up to this moment, and for nearly half of that time my unexplained guiding light had been revealed as something mundane, something ordinary. The same year Amy and I met and made our first attempt to visit the light, a group of students from the Michigan Tech chapter of the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) lead by then PhD candidate Jeremy Bos pointed a telescope directly into the light and learned its secrets. That thing, that object-of-sorts, glowing and pulsating, the one that drove me into the mysterious north, was no more curious than headlights passing by on US-45. The Paulding Light was a hoax, and I’d wasted our only vacation weekend hoping to see headlights like some big, dumb deer in the middle of the road.
I had invested a full day, a couple tanks of gas, two or three meals, and a whole lot of expectation into this trip, and the stubborn guy that I am, I was not about to turn around. After all, Amy didn’t know that the Paulding Light was a hoax. She didn’t even know we were heading off to see the Paulding Light. She deduced the latter a little before we got to Iron County and I spilled the beans about the former to her in a hotel in Eagle River, Wisconsin nearly an hour south of Paulding. (It was strangely difficult to find a hotel in a small, barely-on-the-map town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during possibly the busiest tourism weekend of the year when you haven’t made reservations.)
Finding the viewing site at the end of Robbins Pond Road was easy enough. At the end of the road there was a tattered guard rail with the words “PAULDING LIGHT” spray painted upon it. When we arrived that evening there was already a gathering of people who had shown up before us. An elderly woman explained the phenomenon, and by phenomenon I mean the fact that dozens of people show up nearly every evening to see a flickering light in the distance even after it was proven to be the headlights of a car. She was thoughtful and kind, if a bit skeptical. Her children and grandchildren joined her that night because they were up for Independence Day and the youngest had never seen the light. For the sake of ease of communication, I will call her Jackie. I’ve worked as a part-time news reporter for over two years and I still haven’t acquired the knack for asking and remembering the names of interview subjects. She looked like a Jackie.
The other woman, Jackie’s foil, was more of a Laurie. Her minivan was backed right up to the guard rail, and she hung out just just inside with insect spray, cameras, and clothing for all weather, clearly a Paulding Light veteran. Laurie claimed that she had been studying the light with a physicist for the past fifteen years. Each word she croaked out with great difficulty and sometimes she couldn’t get a sentence out without coughing excessively. She smoked cigarettes, even in the face of the obvious signs of impending emphysema and possible lung cancer.
“A lot of it has to do with energy fields and portals,” Laurie explained to Jackie’s inquisitive daughter.
“And ghosts?” the daughter sarcastically suggested.
“Uh, yeah!” said Laurie, as if nothing could be more obvious.
Laurie must have read a different article as I had, because according to her the true story was that the expedition of Northern Michigan students had been thrown to the ground by the paranormal force associated with the light. As for their conclusions, Laurie had what I can only explain as a Taoist response. For the followers of the Tao in ancient China, the “tao” (way, path, truth, …, there is virtually no limit to the interpretations offered for this single Chinese character) that can be spoken of is not the eternal tao. So also for Laurie, who believed that the headlights spoken of by the SPIE members at NMU were not the true Paulding Light. Rather, the true Paulding Light, in one of its many incarnations, presents itself as the energy field which magnifies the headlights of automobiles passing by.
“How do you know if it’s the real thing?” Jackie’s daughter asked, her sincerity clearly suspect at this point.
“Because the real thing will come flying up here in 30 seconds or less.”
The thought was chilling.
While Jackie’s daughter engaged Laurie in conversation, Jackie described the Paulding Light to us in what seemed a much more reasonable way. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jackie were attempting to fight off the notion that Yoopers (those hailing from the Upper Peninsula) are all wacky conspiracy nuts.
“You can look it up on the computer too,” she said about the light. “It’s interesting.”
This is where Laurie interjected disapprovingly: “Yeah, there’s a lot of CRAP on the computer too.”
As the sun set, the Paulding Light arrived exactly where it had been described. The power lines drew the eye to a break in the trees, and there flickered a light, sometimes bright, sometimes dim, changing from one color to another at times. It was really something to behold. It didn’t dart this way and that, and it certainly didn’t ride the power lines all the way up to us. It was exciting and new for a little while.
Amy and I were covered in insect repellent. It was Amy’s idea. She’s the thoughtful one. She’s also the one who has difficulty standing in one place for too long, and the sound of the mosquitoes buzzing all around her, even though they weren’t landing on her, seemed too much for her. We had seen everything that we were going to see, but I felt the need to stay. I knew what we were looking at, one set of headlights after another, but for some reason I believed that the true Paulding Light, the one that couldn’t be explained away with words or optics, might come down upon us. I wanted my encounter with the real. I wanted to be swept away.
Laurie was showing a blurry picture of a bright light. It didn’t look like anything at all, but to her it was proof that there was something else going on here.
“By the time it got up here it was so huge it couldn’t even fit in the camera,” she said.
Amy was a good sport. I would have stayed all night if I were a young man without attachments, but Amy convinced me that we should go back to the hotel. After dragging my feet for well over an hour, I obliged.
Reflecting upon Laurie and how much she had bought into the local legend, I was reminded of something I read in the article about the Michigan Tech students who myth busted the light. It was a quote from Jeremy Bos:
We’ve been told we haven’t seen the real Paulding Light. I’ve been out there 15 times, hours at a time, in the heat, in the cold, and the rain. It’s always the same. We were out there Monday with a man who saw the headlights on our computer, and he refused to believe it… No matter what, some people will believe what they want to believe.
I can understand how someone like Laurie comes to be, how one can need the mystery beyond the explanation. Amy was sensitive to my disappointment even though I was too stubborn to admit it. I went on about how people explain UFOs away as swamp gas or weather balloons, but that I would be amazed to see swamp gas, to watch the methane belched from the churning muck only to catch flame and singe the overhanging branches. As for the Paulding Light, I noted the SPIE team’s suggestion that heat rising off of the pavement and the existence of an inversion layer in the atmosphere may have caused the distortion of those headlights. I wanted to believe that Mother Nature’s sleight of hand was enough and that I was satisfied, but I wasn’t. I wanted to park my van there nightly and be the one to watch the Paulding Light without end, waiting for the moment it slips up and shows its true colors, but that wasn’t me. I was the guy who was getting married in a couple of months and who was already practiced at spitting out explanations for strange noises in the night before I’d ever even considered honestly their sources. I was the guy who closed doors and made them safe when once I was the one who peaked through the doors that were open just a crack, hoping to see a fleeting image of the sublime.
We straddle the gap between the magical and the scientific. Perhaps humanity has always done so, but it seems so much more true for our generation. Famed author Arthur C. Clarke’s third law said it best — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — and yet we find ourselves ousting the “man behind the curtain” on what seems like an everyday basis. The planets are not gods, but other bodies floating in space much like the earth. The rain comes or doesn’t come regardless of our dances. We know the exact speed at which light travels. We know how to break it down to its component colors. We even understand how to use those colors to detect the presence of elements in distant bodies. But there are many things that we don’t know.
Things that we don’t know yet.
The paranormal seems, to me, to be that gap. Impossible things happen every single day, but nobody is the wiser as to their origins, and yet the moment that even one of us comes into contact with the impossible we begin to bridge the gap. Many people have similar experiences and they begin to share this information, and before long not only do we have provisional answers, but we have an entire community brought together by this phenomenon. Laurie and Jackie may have appeared as twin goddesses, each opposed to the other, but each of them had a tradition of coming out to this particular site and staring off in the same direction. They are part of the crackling energy caused from the conversion of quandary to facts and vice versa. They keep the world rotating, keep it interesting.
As for me, I am going to keep seeking out the paranormal. I am the type to track, catalogue and categorize, to name and to bring light to, but at the end of the day I just want my breath taken away.
And in case you were wondering, Amy and I will not be going to Loch Ness for our honeymoon.